Tuesday, September 18, 2007


This review will, by necessity contain some fairly key plot spoilers. I don't think, however, that they will affect your enjoyment of the film.

There are any number of modern Musicals that aren't immediately thought of, across the board, as belonging to the genre. The South Park movie has just about been admitted to the canon, but My Best Friend's Wedding - definitely a Musical - has escaped the label; Tommy O'Haver's Get Over It and Ella Enchanted are each at least two-thirds purebreed tuner, but you ask people to name a Musical featuring either Kirsten Dunst or Anne Hathaway and you're most likely going to be met with blank stares. Are some Musicals going undercover to avoid stigma? Or is it simply that audiences don't join the dots, thinking that a Musical has to have Busby Berkeley stylings, lines of tiller girls or roots on Broadway?

The latest movie that plenty of armchair pundits are bound to mis-tag as 'not really a Musical' is John Carney's Once and this denial, I expect, is something to do with stigma - Once is going to prove almost too cool in quarters where they don't like things tagged as a musical - but it's also got everything to do with a lack of imagination. The songs in Once might be simple, plain and shamelessly straight-to-the-heart like showtunes are, but they aren't theatrical or flamboyant and they don't scream allegiance to the genre that dare not speak its name.

There are a couple of other credentials that will give Once a leg-up to widespread denial of Musical status: not only is it set in Dublin, like previous actually-yes-it's-a-Musical The Commitments, it also stars that film's Outspan Foster, Glen Hansard, latterly very productive as the vocalist, guitarist and song writer for The Frames. Popular music of the kind you could hear on the radio any day, anywhere, always helps the Musical-deniers blinker themselves.

Hansard plays an unnamed busker who performs on the sreets of Dublin. By day he plays cover versions, by night he plays his own compositions (soon to be played by day by real buskers up and down, no doubt). One of his songs attracts a young girl, played by Markéta Irglová, who also works on the streets, selling roses. Taken by the busker's talent, she wants to hear more, they start spending time together and, to cut an already simple fable down even more, they start to make music together and grow closer. And that, really, is just about it.

This simplicity is evoked by the title, echoing the beginning of a fairy tale. Once isn't taking place in real life, no matter how natural the central characterisations or how downplayed the performances. The busker and the girl aren't given names - and, a couple of times this is sidestepped a little awkwardly in the dialogue which ends up feeling for a moment like those endlessly frustrating movie moments where, for example, two characters agree to a date 'on Friday' but never say where, or at what time exactly. Another romantic dimension of the title is less convincing, however, and unfortunately it is one emphasised by the film's tagline: How often do you find the right person? As much as we come to like the busker and the girl, and by extension Hansard and
Irglová, there's a play for sadness in the closing scenes that doesn't come off. The film coasts to a conclusion on a residual surf of sweetness, never successfully plunging into tearjerking tragedy. Perhaps they did each only find the right person once and the mistaken assumption is that this meant they found each other; perhaps they're doing the right thing by returning to past partners in the film's closing moments? That's quite obviously not the apparently intended meaning but it seems almost as viable a reading in view of the actual emotional material of the last few scenes.

Two musical sequences are formally quite interesting for students of the genre, and they play out virtually back to back. In the first, the girl is listening to a CD of a backing track, trying to compose lyrics. When her batteries die she heads out to the local shop to buy more, and once she has them, an almost entirely unbroken shot of her walking the streets back home is accompanied with her singing along, putting the song together for us. As it begins, the long shot has a mild whiff of Gondry about it - with a background cast of kids that seem on the verge of providing visual accompaniment to the music - quickly dissolving to something more like a Spike Jonze clip and then, before long, feeling a little empty and repetitive, saved from the onset of tedium only by the song. Then, in the second sequence, the guy is shown watching home movie footage of his ex and, inspired by this, singing a song and strumming it out on his guitar. Of course, in actuality the song would have come first, and the footage then reverse engineered in the making of the film and there seem to be some clearly non-diegetic elements of the arrangement, though I may have missed the tape machine they were possibly coming from. The scene does have a mild whiff of deconstructive exploration, but it certainly isn't the thrust. Most of the remaining musical numbers are generated precisely as they would be in life - a bit of busking, a studio session, a CD played on a car stereo (more ammo for the Musical-deniers there, no doubt).

Once is a consistently engaging and sweet natured film, and the story is largely very well constructed but it isn't without problems. Tim Fleming's cinematography is consistently poor, and the ill-conceived long-lens shots that punctuate the opening scenes soon give way to ill-conceived, badly exposed and occasionally out-of-focus long lens shots spattered across the remainder of the running time. Very often the camera draws attention to itself as a peering, voyeuristic probe, other times it does so by rendering the image a hazy, even ugly aesthetic barrier between the audience and the characters. I can see that the strategy was to be 'fuss-free' as much as possible, but sadly Once is another example of the mass delusion that 'documentary' style camera work makes a film more 'realistic', when in fact, all it does is plant small reminders of the camera, not to mention camera operator, on a very regular basis. Indeed, it's a true shame about the issues with cinematography because the better bits of camera and image-making - for example, the slow track in on the busker that then pulls back to reveal the girl for the first time, or the introduction to the girl's flat, mother and daughter - are even rather commendable.

Don't let these issues put you off too much, however. Glen Hansard alone, as an actor, songwriter, singer and musician, brings enough to the film to make it a must-see; alongside
Irglová and Dublin itself he guarantees you'll be coming back for at least a second go-around and very possibly investing in a copy of the soundtrack CD.

Once is released across the UK on 19th October. Deny that it's a Musical if you must, but don't deny yourself the pleasure of seeing it.


Anonymous said...

"This review will, by necessity contain some fairly key plot spoilers. I don't think, however, that they will effect your enjoyment of the film."

Argh! Change "effect" to "affect" immediately and delete this comment. This is the best written, most error-free movie blog on the web, so I'm going to assume you were drunk at the time.

Spidey said...

Seriously? "Affect?" What British numbskull thought of that one? What a throwaway word.

- spidey